To Science, or Not To Science? Alternative Careers For PhDs
As a grad student aspiring to finish within a year or so, I find it scary to be constantly reminded of the ruthlessness within academia: the demands of maintaining an impressive roster of publications, of finding success in securing funding with other highly intelligent, motivated people for a dwindling pool of jobs. I expressed my worries during my lunch break: “Well, Lucka, this issue is not a new issue,” my peers said. And they’re right. But what I have started noticing is that the response to this issue is new.
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a barrage of career articles scattered around the scientific landscape: “Why it’s not a “failure” to leave academia”, “Promoting alternative careers: An adviser's responsibility”, or even “Can we stop calling them nontraditional careers?”, are just a few of them.
To ease my worries, I decided to come up with a backup plan for myself. But with so many people around me treating academia as the default, seeking something else that might work for me was a bit confusing. So, what follows here is a mix of advice and my own experience. This isn’t advice from a veteran, per se – it’s advice from a fellow soldier, still fighting on a few PhD fronts. I might be giving different advice in a few years’ time, but for now, this is what I know. Hopefully, it helps!
Build up a support network
When I started my PhD, it was pretty lonely. I had moved to an unfamiliar country, away from my family and friends, embarking on an intellectual adventure of sorts. This came with a host of challenges – from weird cultural quirks, to making the extra effort to put myself out there so I could meet new and fascinating people.
As every introvert knows, that’s hard work man! I had to push myself and be bold about reaching out to unfamiliar people, especially as I wanted to meet potential mentors one on one.
Over time, by trial and error, I managed to build a strong group of genuine friends, peers, and mentors that supported me throughout my studies, inspired me to grow, helped me gain confidence and gave me space to express myself. They were the ones that pushed me out of my comfort zone, offered advice and connections, and challenged me to do things I never thought I’d be doing. Like interviewing a few science superstars and making my own science radio show, which was broadcast on the BBC. No joke!
Know what you’re bad at, work on it, and nurture it
When I started my PhD, my communication skills were far from good. Knowing that communicating about science is important, I wanted to get better at it. So I signed up for an internship with the Naked Scientists in Cambridge in the UK. They are a bunch of journalists, scientists, and doctors who put science into its (bare) essentials and make podcasts, news articles, and a radio show.
This was also a smart opportunity for me to expose myself to an environment outside of academia and gain some transferable skills. Soon after that experience, I started nurturing my newly discovered skills. I participated in science festivals, joined various outreach campaigns, and organized workshops like “From Geek to Low-tech Speak” to help other grad students who are struggling to communicate about their work.
Reflect on the value of your PhD skills
There were times in my PhD when I lost sight of my value as a PhD student. On occasions, I felt like a PhD represented a terrible waste of time. But by maintaining a network of support, I was quickly reassured that the day-to-day tasks we have to do are actually really helpful in many other careers. For example, you’re given invaluable opportunities to think, to mull things over, and practice logic and fairness in the search for answers. It wasn't until I was presented with challenges in a non-academic environment that I realized how useful my skills could be. Ultimately, that helped me to get my focus back. And I wasn’t alone in this feeling.
A grad buddy, who has recently secured a job as a patent attorney, shared similar concerns with me, saying: “It wasn't immediately obvious how standing at the fume cupboard and synthesizing compounds was going to help me give advice about protecting inventions, and give advice to companies about their intellectual property.” That being said, broader training, coupled with the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurship Scheme (YES) , helped them to succeed in a daunting interview process.
Another senior grad student confessed to me: “I have grown a lot as a person throughout my PhD, especially in confidence, and I’m not quite sure that I would have experienced the same opportunities to grow as such elsewhere.”
Respect and appreciate the people around you
I certainly still relish the freedom to pursue my curiosity in an (academic) laboratory. Yet, some of my peers discovered during their PhD that their dream job was being a business consultant, media reporter, or software developer. There were no “failures” or people who “couldn’t cope with the pace.” Far from it, these people represent some of the brightest and hardworking grad students I’ve known.
The ones who loved intellectual stimulation but wanted a quality-of-life upgrade simply didn’t see how a university lifestyle could tally with their professional or personal goals. They built up an awareness of what they actually wanted out of life, and now they’re going for it. And in observing their journey, they showed me that I still care about research, and that I still want to give academia a try.
“Alternative” career paths as such should be celebrated, not seen as a compromise. Or as Dr Mark Humphries pioneered: “Academia is the alternative career path.” It’s my plan B.
Lucka Bibic (aka ‘Spiderwoman’) started her studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia at the Faculty of Pharmacy, and finished them at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, obtaining her MPharm qualification. After spending a year in Sydney, Australia, where she worked as a pharmacist while studying Academic English, she was awarded with BBSRC DTP scholarship and started her PhD studies at the School of Pharmacy, UEA in the UK.
Lucka is now looking at how spider venom toxins can be used to treat chronic pain. During her PhD, she worked with the Naked Scientists at the University of Cambridge, organized PPD-credited workshops called “From Geek to Low-Tech Speak”, won the prize for the best 3MT (‘3 minute thesis’) presentation at the UEA School of Pharmacy Research Day, and created VR Game “Bug Off Pain” on the idea of her PhD. She believes that the spider venoms could be the next game-changers in pain pharmacology.
- Kruger, Philipp. "Why it is not a 'failure' to leave academia." Nature. (2018): 133-134.
- Pain, Elizabeth. “Promoting alternative careers: An adviser’s responsibility.” Science. (2018)
- LaFranzo A. Natalie. “Can we stop calling them nontraditional careers?” C&EN. (2018)
- Humphries. Mark. “Academia is the alternative path.” Medium. (2018)